My face beamed with excitement when I woke up in the morning. Even six time zones away from America, on the other side of Atlantic Ocean, I felt myself amongst the Americans celebrating the country’s 238th birthday and was overwhelmed with graduate to the country that adopted me and transformed me into a happy, content and fulfilled person. The second summer I came to this small town on the marvelous shore of the Baltic Sea, or more accurately of its Gulf of Riga, to escape the heat and humidity of the Washington, DC area and work on my memoirs. I was delighted to notice the Latvian national flag at a single-story office building located exactly in front of the window where I was sitting and writing; Latvia also had something to celebrate on the 4th of July. It was windy, and the flag, two red strips with a narrow white one between, was cheerfully fluttering in the breeze.
Perhaps a half hour later, I looked again in the window, a man standing on a chair was removing the flag from its holder. “What’s was going on”, I wondered? Only then I noticed that a narrow, black ribbon, a symbol of mourning, which had not properly tightened, had been under the flag. The man carefully tied the ribbon to the proper place above the flag and put it back on the wall. The black ribbon flying above the flag somewhat calmed my excitement of the day – you feel less comfortable being happy when other people are grieving.
It was not the first time during my visiting I saw the national flag with a black ribbon. As always being curios, I tried to ask what tragic event in the Latvian history was honored, nobody, even the homeowners, who put the flags on their houses, could not give a certain answer. I assume they did not want to share with me their tragedy of being, what officially called, occupied for almost 50 years by the Soviet Union. Several hours later I went to the local library to check my e-mail. Of course a flag with a black ribbon was on the library building; as a last chance I asked the librarian about the black ribbon. Proud she could finally answer on my question, many of my previous ones were not so lucky, she replayed, “Today we honor the memory of the victims of genocide during Holocaust.” The combination of words genocide and Holocaust painted my ears and immediately I felt pangs in my heart – my oldest sister had been killed during the Holocaust, thus, I considered the tragedy of the Jews during the WWII very personally.
Being a mathematician much more than only by education, I have a special feeling for numbers and dates. Hitler began the War against the Soviet Union with massive bombardment of Minsk, Belarus, the biggest city close to the border, on Sunday, June 22 of 1941. This year, 73 years later, June 22 also occurred on Sunday and I felt compelled to relive day by day my parents’ fleeing from the unavoidable Nazi’s occupation. They escaped separately, my mother with her family, she came to visit them only two days before, from Minsk, my father with two children and his extended family from Bobruisk, a small town about 100mi south of Minsk. Although all of them, but my oldest sister, were out of immediate danger by the end of the first week of the War; they were exceedingly lucky for both places had been occupied almost immediately, in my mind, I was following their odyssey.
The 4th of July in 1941was on Friday, the second Friday after the War began. “It was too early for Nazis to kill Latvian Jews,” instantly crossed my mind. “What had happened at that day and what was the year?” I asked being greatly puzzled. “Sorry, I do not know any details,” the Latvian librarian answered deeply apologetically, as I discovered later, I wrongly interpreted as for her ignorance. I did not receive the e-mail I eagerly expected, so my festive mood almost evaporated; yet I had to continue on with my plans for the day.
For me keeping Kashrus in Latvia was quite easy; there were plenty of all kinds of vegetables, berries and fish, for the country is famous for its numerous rivers, lakes and, of course, the Sea, but I had periodically to take an hour bus-ride to Riga and go to the Jewish school where in a small cafeteria they sold some made-on-premises food to buy roles for Sabbath. That Friday had been a day for such a trip.
As soon I arrived, I asked the women behind the counter about the black ribbon on the flag; nobody was able to give me a meaningful answer. Every time being in this cafeteria I could do nothing with myself but indulge with the baked goods made there. That time I had a perfect excuse – everyone was celebrating American birthday with food. I bought a pirozhok with mushrooms, the staple of the Russian delicatessens, and a cup of coffee. I slowly enjoyed my treat when a man with a beard came into the cafeteria, perhaps one of the school’s teachers. I interrupted my festive meal and ran to ask what happened with Jews at that day that Latvia declared as a day of national mourning.
Of course, he knew about the tragedy of Latvian Jews. “On July 4 of 1941, they forced many Jews in the main synagogue and put it on fire, so everyone was burned there alive.”
“Did Nazis already occupy Riga, Latvia so soon; the War began only less than two weeks before?” I asked rather myself being unable to fully take in his words. “Who told you that it was the Nazis? The local Latvians did it on their own, without waiting for the Nazis’ order,” he responded coldly. (As I found out later, Hitler’s army did arrive in Riga three days before the tragedy, on July 1, yet it was the Latvians who rushed to execute the Jews and to take their belongings, being absolutely confident their assistance in killing Jews would be greatly appreciated.) “How many Jews were killed on this Friday?” I asked with tears welling up in my eyes. “I did not count,” he relayed flatly, annoyed by my questions. “Where did it happen?” I could not stop asking more detail about so much shocked me tragedy. “Only two blocks away, on the intersection of Gogol and Dzirnavu streets, you certainly passed the place while coming here.”
My pirozhok became absolutely tasteless, the coffee – cold and bitter when I slowly returned to my table; I finished them anyway; do-not-leave-any-food-on-a-plate rule is engraved deeply, perhaps even forever, into me. I took my belongings; they became extremely heavy now, not so because the bag of goods I bought in the cafeteria, but as if the tragedy, I learned about only recently, somehow heavily rested on my shoulders bending me and taking away my strength.
I slowly dragged along the street, still shocked with what I had heard and feeling for those Jews who 73 years ago were preparing to greet Sabbath and had met their deaths in such a barbarous and inhuman way instead. After a short walk I saw the place the man mentioned. I did passe the place several times; it was on the opposite side of the street, almost hidden with huge, branchy, old trees, the witnesses of the tragedy.
What I saw there, the manner in which Latvia converted the memory of the never-even-counted number of perished Jews into triumph of its, although noble, citizens added so much to my feelings that I had an urge to leave the country, the place I was enjoying so much immediately.
Deep in thoughts I crossed the street. The place was quiet, tidy and very peaceful. I was absolutely alone, yet the fresh cut flowers all around indicated a memorial ceremony not long ago. It was easily to assume that not only the fire destroyed the magnificent Riga’s main synagogue, for only the walls below the windows left. The highest, unusually thick wall was facing the street. Two sidewalls were much lower, both had symmetrical entrances and steps down to a huge space with skillfully decorated floor, red and white ceramic tiles artistically arranged in different size rectangles. The shortest, about two foot above the ground, fourth wall going down to the tiled floor was neatly finished during the conservation of the place.
It was the official Day of Remembrance honoring the anniversary of the tragedy, so it was natural to see on the walls, especially on the shortest one, flowers, here and there mainly single ones, more likely brought by individuals. There were two dozen burning memorial candles on the left side of the shortest wall; I never before saw candles with lids to protect the fire from wind and rain. I began loudly sobbing – again it was Friday in the world. For some reason sameness of the day then and now made my compassion, my feeling for the victims much stronger. I even could hear the laughter and yelling voices; the words were heavily peppered with Russian curses, of the butchers trying to expedite the burning in a rush to loot the Jewish houses, starting from the kitchen, to grab all food and drinks on the beautifully set tables and to wolf the tastiest food the Jews had prepared for their Sabbath.
When I calmed down, I noticed a huge brown-reddish rock with inscription on it. It was five small, hardly recognizable Hebrew letters separated with little squares, looked like an ornament or a decoration on the top of the rock; beneath them was a huge “4/VII 1941” deeply, forever engraved into the rock.
Looking at these almost effaced Hebrew letters I fully grasped why the Minsk’s Jews were so proud that the small, boring monument located at the site of the ghetto, known as Yama, a pit in Russian, that commemorates the slaughter of more than 5,000 Jews on March 2, 1942 has a long Hebrew engraving and the word Evrei, Jews, is mentioned in the Russian language part of inscription. This Minsk’s engraving was an extremely rare exception; nowhere else, even on the old, huge, extravagant monument in the Babiy Yar in Kiev, was the word Evrei mentioned; a faceless and neutral the Soviet citizens was used instead. As I had heard numerous times, the Minsk’s engraving had been possible only because it was done as soon as Minsk was liberated by a famous Army General whose entire family was perished in the ghetto and there was nobody to ask permission or approval.
Near the rock, on the ground were several bouquets of flowers, as I remember from my previous life, such bouquets usually were brought by some official organizations. There was also a small flower wreath with a ribbon inscribed with a gold littering, definitely of the same origin. The amount of flowers I saw so far was suspiciously small; it was gazillions of flowers in all other places around. With perplexity I looked around and only then noticed several foot away a strange looking monument with several separated boards or panels and columns of names written on each of them. Under these panels was a hill of bouquets and several wreaths. “Certainly, the majority of flowers should be near the list of the victims,” I reasoned to myself and with a huge relief sensed that the entire list was not very long, a hundred or even less names.
I approached the monument. The panels were arranged in a rather strange way, so it was much more of them than I noticed looking from the side; thus, the list was two hundred or even more names long. Something was wrong in this monument, but for a long while I was not able to sense what. It was an engraved picture of man on the widest, middle panel above the list of names; the man was kind of smiling. “Well, they could not find another picture of the Rabbi,” I tried to rationalize to myself. There were no dates under the picture. “Is it possible that nobody knew his age, at least approximately?” I began to slowly read the list. Several lines later, I was thunderstruck noticing the first name – Valentina, no doubt a Russian woman’s name. If she had been converted to Judaism, she would definitely get a Hebrew name afterwards. I stared at the list; there were no traditional Jewish names, like Chaim, or Moishe, not any Sarah or Rivkah as well. Some last names were definitely Russian’s, Morozova, for example.
I felt I was losing my mind; I would understand it if it were a list of names of contemporary Jews who were trying hard to conceal their Jewish origin. But the tragedy happened in 1941, Latvia became a part of the Soviet Union only about a year before; the local Jews had no need, no way to change their names so quickly. Feeling I was going absolutely crazy seeing all the flowers under the list of not-Jewish names, I helplessly looked around for some explanation.
Next to the monument I noticed a small concrete column, usually found at historical places, and a plate on it. The explanation was in three languages, Latvian, English and Russian. It reads “Monument to Zanis Lipke”, I think it was his smiling face engraved and he was still alive, ”and all Latvian Jew saviors during the Holocaust in 1941-1945, who risked their lives to save more than 400 Jews from death.” A little bit below was the explanation of the design, “The monument consists of a crumbling wall that is threatening to destroy the Jewish people and the columns with names that hold it off, symbolizing the saviors;” and then in smaller letters, “The monument was open on July 4, 2007, the Day of Remembrance of the victims of genocide against the Jews.”
“What is an upside own memory,” was the only thought occurred to me after seeing this absolutely absurd on the place where the victims of genocide supposed to be honored.
Continuing on my trip to Riga, I went to the huge market located nearby and bought some berries and locally grown tomatoes there. While relaxing in the comfortable seat of the bus returning me home (it was so nice to have Sabbath beginning at 10 pm, then Havdolah on Sunday morning) I decided to write down how I spent the Friday, July 4th in Riga.
While writing, I suddenly realized that I did not recall having a single thought about the American celebration since I began to eat the pirozhok in the cafeteria. Well, I was in Riga, in Latvia, in another part of the world, and above all, as I proudly concluded, I am still more a Jew than an American.
July 06, 2014, Jurmala, Latvia